IOWA CITY — Michigan entered last Tuesday’s game at Ohio State somewhat rattled after losing two of its last three, including an 18-point pounding at Iowa three days earlier.
Ohio State had won three straight, including road wins at Wisconsin and Iowa, and had beaten the Wolverines nine straight times in Columbus.
The result? Michigan won 70-60. The first-place Wolverines then returned home Sunday to face Wisconsin, which at one point had lost five of six in league play. Of course the Badgers promptly whipped Michigan 75-62.
“(Everybody figured we’d) probably lose the road game and win the home game,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “But it was the exact opposite of what happened.”
Welcome to the unpredictable world of Big Ten basketball, where up and down intersect like a carnival ride.
Michigan won its first eight games in league play but has lost three of its last five. Penn State lost six straight to start the season, then won three straight for the first time in five years. Nebraska, picked for last by league sports writers before the season, beat preseason No. 1 Michigan State 60-51 on Sunday. It was the first time the Cornhuskers have reached .500 in the Big Ten (6-6) and the first time since 1997 Nebraska upset a top-10 on the road.
Northwestern dropped its first three league games by 23 or more points, then won five of its next seven. That included three straight road wins for the first time since 1960 and an 11-point win at the Kohl Center, where the Wildcats never had won. Illinois started the Big Ten season ranked in the top 25 and now sits in last place at 3-10.
“There’s so much parity among those clubs,” ESPN Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale said. “There are no cupcakes, I don’t care where you go. There’s nobody that you can just walk in and get a ‘W.’ That’s why the league is so good. That’s why I believe each team should be really be ready to make some noise come tournament time.”
“Win or lose, when you finish the game, you kind of take a deep breath and then your assistant coaches give you the folder for the next game,” Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said. “It’s another top 25 team you’re facing or another really good team that’s won three or four in a row. For us, it’s a battle every night.”
Michigan and Michigan State remain co-leaders in Big Ten play at 10-3 overall, 1 1/2 games ahead of Iowa (8-4). Seven teams have between five and eight wins. Only Northwestern has a losing overall record. Every team has won at least two in a row, and only the top three teams haven’t lost at least two consecutive games. Every team but Iowa has lost at least one game by double digits.
“To me nothing is surprising,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think that makes our league that much more unique. Every other league has bad teams. We don’t have any bad teams.”
The league has gotten more topsy-turvy since Jan. 25. Road teams have won 22 of 40 games and of the six games played Saturday or Sunday, the visitor won five. That included Nebraska’s victory at Michigan State.
“I don’t think it’s any question that top to bottom it’s the best since I’ve been here,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “The last couple of years it was pretty good, but it’s even better now. That’s because the two or three teams that you thought were at the bottom of the league for a lot of years are not only playing better, they’re playing really well.”
Ten days ago, Iowa’s league record was 6-4, three games behind Michigan and Michigan State. If Iowa wins Tuesday, it’s only one game behind both with 19 days left in regular-season play. But McCaffery prefers to keep his focus more narrow rather than the title hunt.
“If ever there was a time to just focus on the next game, which we say all the time, it’s this year in this league,” he said. “You can’t look down the road or look at the standings. You have to just look at the next opponent.
“At the end of this thing, somebody is going to win this league. I don’t know who that is right now because every night you have to bring your ‘A’ game. You cannot bring your ‘B’ game no matter who you are in this league and expect to win. You’re probably going to get embarrassed. It’s that simple.”
Indiana embodies the league’s upside-down nature. The Hoosiers were outright league champions last year and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This year the Hoosiers are 4-8 in league play with home wins against ranked opponents Michigan and Wisconsin, but home losses to Penn State and Northwestern.
“What we have is a consistency of work habits and work ethic, which is really good, which is part of the process,” Indiana Coach Tom Crean said. “But we don’t have that consistency of what it takes physically and mentally to win the games.”
So what does this mean for the Big Ten’s NCAA tournament hopes? Five teams are virtual locks — Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State — but Minnesota and Nebraska are in the mix for bubble spots. Does this parity drag down seedings and prevent bubble teams from earning bids?
Division I basketball committee chairman Ron Wellman said the committee will take the league’s depth into consideration. The Big Ten has seven teams with an RPI of at least 52, tying the Big 12 and Pac-12 for the national high.
“A conference like the Big Ten that is very deep this year, they are going to benefit from the RPIs of those particular teams,” said Wellman, the athletics director at Wake Forest. “So the teams are judged individually, but a part of that judgment, of course, is who you play, where you play, and the result of the game.”
Izzo, for one, believes the league’s balance should lead to more tournament teams.
“I’ve watched so much over the years when the ACC had just Duke and Carolina and everybody ballyhooed about them being the best league,” Izzo said. “Other teams weren’t very good. Every year seems to be different. I think we’ve beaten up each other pretty good.”